The conclusion of my Fringe Festival experience took place in the chilly Artist’s Image Resource building, a small yet colorful space dotted with anti-Trump art pieces. I would be seeing 5 completely disparate one person shows here. As with the rest of my time at the festival this weekend, none of them resembled each other in any way.
The first show is Holiday Countdown, a live reading of a writing project from local author Jenn Stover. While Stover’s short pieces are indeed a series of quirky, bizarre, often humorous moments tied together by impending holidays, this drab title fails to capture the absurdist joy of both her writing and her show.
The conceit is like this: Stover chose a seemingly arbitrary series of days before the four most major US holidays, and wrote a short, usually fictional piece at least tangentially related to the event or the culture surrounding it every day for half a year. Rather than a series of memoir-style musings about how ‘Christmas sure is stressful,’ these pieces quickly explode into insane parables about elf genocide, cupid’s alcoholism, and the threat of Mayor Bill Peduto who, to paraphrase, is accompanied ‘by the scent of bike lanes and a culture of acceptance.’
Stover’s pieces are likable and hit like a brick at their best. They’re not entirely dissimilar to the prose of a writer like Patricia Lockwood. However, the pieces Stover read were seemingly at a whim, and the fact that the project appears to be currently half finished means it’s lacking in clear narrative bookends or even a strong central theme of any kind. Stover is a powerful humorist and a great writer but the relative lack of focus cut into an otherwise super cool conceit for a series.
I returned to AIR an half hour later to find it had been transformed into a ‘40s hotel room for one of this year’s biggest highlights, The Portable Dorothy Parker. Instead of a traditional series of autobiographical scenes, show creator Annie Lux instead opts to retell the life of the punchy author by giving us a window into the editing process of the eponymous collection of Parker pieces the play is based upon.
In other words, as Parker picks pieces for her collection, she has reason to retell more and more stories from her life. It’s one of those conceits that scream ‘hey I’m the conceit!’ but it essentially opens the show up to cover a greatest hits of moments, quotes and written pieces from Parker’s life in a really tasteful way.
The show quickly sinks into an identical rhythm of poem-anecdote-quote-bittersweet reflection, yet I found myself looking past the show’s repetition due to the otherwise quality script and a stellar performance from Margot Avery, who possesses both the grace and the subversion the character demands.
I’m at the mercy of any play which can effectively utilize a quote like “I hate actresses…they simply cannot stop undulating.”
Next was The Seven Suitcases of a Snake Oil Salesman, a one man comedy/magic/puppet show. As with Dorothy Parker, Snake Oil possesses a clever ‘aha!’ conceit; onstage are seven suitcases stacked on top of one another, each containing a new lie to explore.
O’Ryan the O’Mazing’s strange yet simple exploration of identity in falsehood is a fun, yet incomplete-feeling show. While the narrative mostly works, it is oddly paced. The first suitcase, which contains rubber snakes for O’Ryan to grind, establishes the fun, somewhat intimate tone, but other sequences like the puppet show arrive at their thematic conclusion far earlier than their actual conclusion. There is some worthwhile whimsy here and O’Ryan is a likable host, but Seven Suitcases would do better with a sharper focus on its best and quirkiest moments.
Mo-on-the-oncle, Melissa Cole’s one woman comedy about a teenager who is forced to use a monocle for his schoolwork after his father loses their vision coverage is fast-paced and idiosyncratic enough to resemble a shorter, more socially conscious Wes Anderson film. Cole jumps from bizarre caricature to bizarre caricature to deliver a series of booming monologues: there is the teen’s wealthy uncle, a pimp who loves to sing out his feelings to karaoke Rascal Flatts songs, the put-upon father and his paycheck dance, and a clueless, tactless doctor who spends most of his day convincing his patients not to sue.
What Cole’s characters lack in complexity they make up for in sheer presence. Some of Cole’s comedic delivery is too bent towards sketch comedy to make the show as a whole sing, but she has also written moments of undeniable power. The teenager, after a consultation with the most pretentious ophthalmologist in the world, performs an entire rap song about his impending death by monocle.
Mo-on-the-oncle, incidentally, is the one show I caught at the festival I thought could stand to last a little longer. Clocking in at a concise twenty minutes, this is a show that may benefit from not only tonal variety, but maybe a few more characters as well.
I ended the festival with Laundry Night, meaning my Sunday was bookended by shows whose overall quality is much greater than their cookie-cutter titles. Laundry Night chronicles the origins of accordion-toting superhero extraordinaire, Captain Ambivalent.
While the show does feature a giant inflatable dinosaur, glittering costume design and the appearance of a clownish hippie who plays songs using Micro Jammer toys, Laundry Night is an intimate experience as far as musical comedies go. We sit with Ambivalent as he wastes away in a job he hates and an apartment complex that perpetually leaks Counting Crows’ “Mr. Jones” through the walls.
The audience happily cheers Ambivalence on as he quits his job to pursue fame and fortune as a musician, but his self-deprecating demeanor suggest that this is a false narrative; Ambivalence isn’t seeking glory much as he’s finally becoming a truer version of what he’s always been.
Laundry Night is a good show, and a fitting festival closer. Pittsburgh’s Fringe Fest has nowhere near the presumed splendor of its big brother in Edinburgh, which feels somehow appropriate for a city that so often prides itself on being the underdog. This weekend, for me, wasn’t a series of high profile artists marathon-ing their established material, but instead a series of intimate mysteries waiting to be unpacked, an unpredictable treasure chest that replenishes itself every hour.